All season long, the defending champions Minnesota Lynx have looked as solid as a brick house. But after the Los Angeles Sparks handed them their third loss today – the second in a row – the Lynx admitted there have been cracks in the foundation all along.
Kristi Toliver lead the Sparks with a career-high 29 points, while Candace Parker added 28, along with 13 rebounds. Seimone Augustus paced four other Lynx in double figures with 18 points.
Minnesota outdid their opponents in assists, but faltered with free throws, shooting only 53 percent. Los Angeles had 50 percent free throw shooting to the visitor’s 34.6. But most of all, the Lynx seemed flat. Coach Cheryl Reeve said the Sparks “made their defense look silly.”
“They didn’t have to get their third, fourth options in their offense,” a subdued Reeve said. “Everything was first or second option. They had two players that I thought lit us up. Toliver and Parker had everything they wanted and it was an easy game for them.”
Reeve said lack of defense is their first problem.
“We’ve been talking about the same stuff, even when we’re winning games,” Reeve said. “On hard games on the road, you can’t give up 90-some points. Nothings changed, which was why we lost two games in a row and gave up 90-plus points in each of those games.”
The deeper issue for Minnesota, however, is complacency.
“We hear from our opposing coaches that we don’t have any weaknesses. We don’t necessarily see that,” Reeve said “We’re not as good as we were last year defensively and the grit and the hunger – we haven’t found that yet this year.”
Augustus, who was last year’s playoffs MVP, agreed with Reeve’s assessment.
“Last year you could tell we had a little bit more of a hunger, a drive,” Augustus said. “Everybody was talking about the potential we had as a team, and we had something to prove that we could put everything together and win a championship.”
“Now it’s like you’ve got a championship and you’re more laid back, you’re not as aggressive, and you’re just going through the motions. We need to flip on the switch and hit the next level, because it is the next level. We’ve been winning games not feeling comfortable about the way we were winning games, and now it’s starting to catch up with us as of the last two on the road.”
Augustus said that although the Lynx began on a record win streak, there was something missing all along.
“We were winning games, making shots, and everything fell into place those first 13 games, but it wasn’t the way we wanted to win games,” Augustus said. “Defensively we still felt like we lacked in a lot of areas, paying attention to details.”
The team is preparing for Eastern Conference leaders Connecticut, who they face Saturday.
“We’re going to go back to the drawing board and figure out what we need to do over the next day,” Augustus said. “It’s more mental for us than physical. It’s getting that hunger mode back.”
Though they had to hold off a Minnesota surge in the last period, the Sparks found redemption in the win, which snapped a three-game losing streak that they attributed to a plethora of games in a short period of time, lots of road travel and no time to practice or rest.
Los Angeles got off to a strong start and lead 49-43 at halftime. They outscored the Lynx 26-14 in the third quarter, but the fourth was Minnesota’s period, as bench players Candice Wiggins, Monica Wright and Amber Harris put in seven points a piece. But despite the Sparks shooting just 23 percent, they were able to hold off the champs with the lead they’d already built.
Toliver said the Sparks expected a run from Minnesota.
“They’re a deep team, a competitive team, and we knew they weren’t going to fold,” Toliver said. “We had some let downs on the offensive end and weren’t at our sharpest on the defensive end at times. But basketball is a game of runs and we knew they were going to make one.”
Sparks Coach Carol Ross said she appreciated the energy of her team, who dropped five of their six losses in a two-week span after starting the season second in the Western Conference, behind the Lynx.
“They did some different things and we didn’t adjust as quickly as we could have, but I’m just really excited about how we bounced back and stood up,” Ross said. “With a little rest and practice we’re a pretty good team.”
This was the Sparks’ first game in a week, and besides some time off, they had a chance to practice.
“We wanted to correct everything that we were doing poorly, which was defending, rebounding, and executing better,” Ross said. “All the good we’d done coming out of training camp, the schedule didn’t afford us the ability to maintain that.”
Toliver said the break between games was good for the entire team, and they are more energetic than they were a week ago.
“We needed to get back to fundamentals and prepare and focus, and that’s what we did,” she said. “We could really break down everything offensively, defensively – just little things that we haven’t been able to do.”
Toliver is optimistic about the rest of the season.
“Hopefully we can start a new run like how we started the season. We’re excited about it,” she said.
Los Angeles continues their homestand this weekend, as they face Seattle on Saturday and Atlanta Sunday.